I don’t know what, exactly, I was expecting when I got my copy of Lives of the Monster Dogs, but hell if there’s a universe where I wasn’t going to read it. Canine Prussian science experiments turned aristocrats trying to make it in modern-day New York? Coupled with such lines as “the first child in the world (I proudly believe) to be blessed with having a Samoyed for a godmother”? I’m so in.
Also, I love dogs.
So. Lives of the Monster Dogs is, as its title may suggest, about the lives of monster dogs, surgically and genetically altered creatures enhanced with superior intelligence and the ability to speak, and what happens when they try to adjust to twenty-first century life. The story goes like this: way back in 1800-something Prussia/Germany, surgical prodigy/burgeoning mad scientist Augustus Rank decides that what the Prussian army really needs is a battalion of super-soldiers, and that these super-soldiers should be dogs. Wilhelm II, then only Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, for some reason decides that this is totally logical and a good idea, so he gives Rank all the resources he needs, and through a series of shenanigans, Rank ends up with a small village of devoted followers in the middle of Canada. Because this book is still somewhat within the realm of realism and science takes fucking time, Rank dies before he can finish his dogs, and it’s another sixty years or so before we actually get Rank’s completed project: walking dogs with prosthetic hands, mechanical voice boxes, and the baffling desire to be treated according to their newly human intelligence. In typical human fashion, they aren’t.
So the dogs rebel. They win, ransacking the homes of the dead and burning down Rankstandt, and then, left with nothing else to really do, decide to leave this godforsaken village for the outside world—namely, New York City.
That’s all backstory, by the way. You get a condensed version of it at the beginning of the narrative—dogs, science, Prussia—but chronologically, the events of the novel take place in the present, when the dogs have left the pseudo-nineteenth century world of Rankstandt and are attempting to adjust to Manhattan.
Our main character here—if we can really say there is one—is Cleo Pira, a twenty-something human who is pulled, quite literally, into the lives of the dogs via an impromptu friendship with one Ludwig von Sacher, a German Shepherd who mistakes her for a ghost from the past. Once initiated into their circle, Cleo becomes more and more involved with the dogs (while, amusingly, taking care of her own non-enhanced German Shepherd). As a narrator, Cleo strikes me as a particularly Haruki Murakami-esque protagonist: a little lonely, a little lost, and more than a little over her head. She’s more observer than active participant, which is fitting given her role as a reporter specializing in dog news, but also just generally someone whose default personality is low-key. There’s something subdued and dampened about her, and it’s a melancholy that’s also true of the dogs she interacts with, Prussia frock coats and bustled skirts notwithstanding.
Speaking of dogs…
As befitting a book titled Lives of the Monster Dogs, there are, of course, a number of dogs involved. In the present, the most important are probably Ludwig, a historian trying to reconstruct the life of Augustus Rank and so better understand himself; Lydia, a Samoyed who has the beauty and faded elegance of a deposed Russian aristocrat; and Klaue, a Malamute who stands as the de facto leader of the dogs and whose fluffy fur cannot hide his secrets (insert obvious Mean Girls reference here). All three of these characters gravitate towards Cleo for their own reasons, but even in their most friendly interactions with her, there’s an air of distance between them. They like Cleo, sometimes they even trust her, but there’s always a gap between them, an irreconcilable species/cultural distance that prevents Cleo from fully understanding the dogs. Cleo treats her dog friends the same way she treats her (admittedly few) human friends, and for the most part it works. All the same, as the dogs are quick to remind her, they’re not human—not even dogs anymore, really, but something in between. Monsters, in short.
Which is not to say that they’re treated as such per se. For the most part, New York proves kind to its canine citizens, giving them movie deals and fancy penthouses—what else are you supposed to do with your nineteenth-century valuables?—and some degree of societal acceptance. Still, it’s hardly a dog’s life for the former citizens of Rankstandt. There’s a mysterious disease afflicting the dogs, making them temporarily revert to animal consciousness, and it’s only been worsening. More than that, though, the dogs are distinctly aware that they don’t belong: not as dogs, not as anachronistic dwellers of 19th century Prussia, and certainly not as New York socialites. The dogs know this, and they know there’s nothing to do about it. They’re an anomaly, creatures who “have no past, and no possibility of a future.” And so all they want, in the end, is to retain their dignity.
Far from the pulpy adventure promised by its title and cover image, Lives of the Monster Dogs is a subdued, slow book. There’s interest paid to the mad scientist tropes and the fascinating history of the monster dogs, but the brunt of the action comes from the psychological/philosophical implications of the whole scenario. In this way, Monster Dogs works in this register that a lot of literary/speculative fiction hybrids employ—My Cat Yugoslavia, Spaceman of Bohemia, The Seed Collectors, maybe even Dhalgren if we want to go back to the classics—where we’ve got decidedly fantastical situations but they’re treated in a manner that’s decidedly more contemplative than plot-based. Magical realism is a good start for describing it, but it’s not quite that either; slipstream probably the best word in this instance, the best descriptor for the deliberately slipperiness between boundaries, but ironically, even that doesn’t feel quite right.
New Weird is another potential category, especially since Jeff Vandermeer (aka the other New Weird writer besides China Mieville) wrote a foreword for Monster Dogs, and from what little I’ve read of Vandermeer, I can definitely see the New Weird influences. The focus on the mundane effects of the extraordinary, the use of multiple sources, the whole text-within-a-text format—these are all tropes that you can find in Mieville and Danielewski, as well as in Vandermeer’s work. Even so, in those books, there seems to be a larger emphasis on plot than what we have in Monster Dogs, a greater attention paid on what’s happening and what’s going to happen. New Paris is under attack; there are creepy mushroom people, and they’re appearing in our houses; the spooky house is changing shape and people are dying. In Monster Dogs, things just…kind of happen.
Which is not the say that there isn’t a sense of stakes—I personally was gripped by the last third or so of the novel—but they’re less critical than chronic, an ever-present unease that constantly buzzes in the background without quite reaching a fever pitch. Obviously, there are legitimate threats to the lives of the dogs, but more than that, they’re lost characters, grappling less with an epidemic than a low-level sense of existential confusion. In terms of pacing, Monster Dogs very much feels like a throwback to the late 19th century novels our Prussian dogs would have read, Madame Bovary’s slow, steady catalogue of everyday occurrences.
This isn’t a complaint. The slower pace works for the book, as does the generally subdued nature of the characters and their relationships. You could certainly make an argument that Cleo isn’t the most interesting of narrators and that her friendships with Ludwig and Lydia hardly well strong enough to bolster the importance of these characters in her life, but to me, these choices feel consistent with the rest of the themes in the narrative. There’s a sense of loneliness throughout Monster Dogs, beginning with the breakup that Cleo enters the book with, and I think it’s only fitting that with even the closest relationships in this book, our characters are left somehow missing.
It is, however, interesting to consider, how a book that on paper has so little going in the way of immediate plot managed to keep me gripped throughout. Part of it’s due to the slightly non-linear storytelling going on—we get Rank’s story interspersed through Cleo’s narration—but the larger part is undoubtedly due to Kirsten Bakis’s sheer ability to write, both in terms of prose and the underlying, less sexy work of tone and characterization and, yes, plot. Seriously, it’s pretty impressive when a book manages to make me take seriously aristocratic Samoyeds in kimonos and rebel leaders with names like Mops Hacker. It should be ridiculous; it kind of is ridiculous, but in a way that somehow makes the whole scenario sadder, pathetic and pathos-inducing at the same time. These are dogs in clothes, but far from what the internet would have you believe, it’s a scenario that’s less cute than just sad.
So. That’s Lives of the Monster Dogs. I don’t want to describe it in these terms since technically any book can be thought-provoking (hooray humanities?), but somehow that’s the impression I came away with. What, exactly, I should be thinking about in terms of theme/technique/contemporary literary trends I don’t know, but it’s definitely one of those books that leaves you in an odd, contemplative space; once again, the Murakami comparison proves apt. It’s a strange, sad book, and if that just happens to be your jam (the way it’s 110% mine), it’s definitely worth giving Lives of the Monster Dogs a look. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to give your dog a hug, and that is always a positive life choice.